The Fathers and Scripture

This is a reprint – and earlier follow-up on the Orthodox reading of Scripture. I pray it is timely as well.

It is easy from the outside to form an incorrect picture of the Orthodox interpretation of Scripture. There is actually quite a bit of variety among the Fathers when it comes to reading the Word of God. Even in the earliest centuries there were noted differences in the approach that obtained among those trained in Antioch and those trained in Alexandria, the two great centers of Christian exegesis. To a large extent, Antioch won (at least on certain points). Antioch was far more literal in its approach, while Alexandria was more enamoured of allegory. Alexandria was doubtless weakened by the excess of Origen’s allegories but mostly by the monophysite controversy.

But on the whole, Biblical exegesis became largely settled by the great doctrinal controversies during the period of the Ecumenical Councils. The deluge of exegesis endured from the proponents of Arianism made the Church as wary of by-the-seat-of-your-pants Bible interpretation as St. Irenaeus had been a century earlier in dealing with Gnostic Bible handling.

The continued appeal to Tradition, that is, the way the Scriptures had been handled in the past by those who were trusted names within the Church made for a fairly conservative approach to Biblical interpretation. Also, it was noted that in the struggle to give proper voice to Christian doctrine, Scripture alone was sometimes insufficient, at least when it came to writing summarizing statements. Thus much of the battle of St. Athanasius’ use of the word homoousios (“of one being”) in the Creed of Nicaea was the charge that he was introducing a word that was not found in the Scriptures. True, he had. But after nearly a century’s debate, it was clear that no single word within Scripture could say what the single word of St. Athanasius had said. Without this word, the truth of the Trinitarian dogma (known in silence) could not have been well-spoken in public and confessed in the Church.

By the same token, later dogmatic questions, such as that of the Personhood of Christ, though informed by Scripture, could not be settled by the citation of verses alone. Clear theological statements such as those of St. Gregory Nazianzus, “That which is not assumed is not saved,” offered a continuing expression of the matrix of belief required in the Church for the same doctrine of salvation to be preached. Unless Christ is fully man, we cannot be saved. Unless Christ is fully God, we cannot be saved, for only God can give to man what man must have in order to be healed from the wound of sin.

Apart from the conciliar debates, another world of Scriptural exegesis became extremely popular, and that was the work of the great hymnographers. Perhaps the one figure who best combined both Scriptural scholarship and hymn writing into one was that of St. John of Damascus. But there were others, both male and female. To this day the richest commentary on Scripture in the Orthodox Church is to be found in the hymnody in the daily round of services that cycle through the Christian year. The language of the Councils was made to sing. St. Gregory Nazianzus, previously mentioned, delighted in writing poetry far more than prose. Theology is not only true – that which is true should also be beautiful.

The comments on the beauty of Orthodox worship frequently neglect to state that though the actions of the services have their beauty, it is the hymnography soaring above everything that transports the service to heaven, or rather imports heaven to earth. And the content of that hymnography is primarily doctrinal. Never was theology made to sing in such beauty – either before or since.

Today, I believe there is a renewed need for Orthodox attention to Scripture – not because there is something lacking in our worship – but because the study of Scripture has been left in shambles in the West after the past 200 years. Liberal scholarship has collapsed into ludicrous games of dropping colored marbles to “vote” on whether a passage of the gospel is authentic and actually attributable to Christ. Thus far, the Jesus Seminar (the voting group) has only attributed a single statement to Christ.

Fundamentalism lost its way before every it got started following the red herring of Darwinian debate.

There is a need for Orthodoxy to draw from its rich history of exegesis and bring it to the table of Scriptural scholarship – a need for the lex orandi (the rule of praying) to become the lex legenda (the rule of reading) In the course of such we should not be ashamed to say that the Scriptures are the book that is uniquely the Church’s book and that the manner of its reading is uniquely the manner of the Church. It is more than history, more than myth, more than any of the current theories floating about. When held in the hands of the believing Church and rightly read, it is the true Word of God unto salvation. Far too few Christians have heard it sung in such a manner. When placed within the matrix of the Apostolic rule of faith, the Scriptures reveal their treasures like a no earthly thing. It is this exegesis that must be taught to the generations of Orthodox clergy being trained and this exegesis that must be preached in our Churches and shouted from the rooftops.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





10 responses to “The Fathers and Scripture”

  1. Justin Farr Avatar

    You always put things in perspective for me. Thank you!

  2. Fr. James Early Avatar

    “There is a need for Orthodoxy to draw from its rich history of exegesis and bring it to the table of Scriptural scholarship – a need for the lex orandi (the rule of praying) to become the lex legenda (the rule of reading)”

    Amen! Fortunately, some Orthodox scholars are already working on this. Two examples I am aware of are Dr. Jeanne Constantinou of the University of San Diego (and teacher on the “Search the Scriptures” podcast on Ancient Faith Radio), and Fr. Lawrence Farley, author of the Orthodox Bible Study Companion series, published by Concilar Press.

    Incidentally, Dr. Constantinou is the wife of a parish priest, and Fr. Farley IS one. IMHO, the Scriptures are best understood in a pastoral setting. Not surprisingly, the greatest Orthodox scriptural interpreters (especially in the first few centuries) have always been bishops and priests, not ivory tower academics, as has often been the case in the West.

  3. nate Avatar

    “Fundamentalism lost its way before every it got started following the red herring of Darwinian debate.”

    Father, could you expound on what you meant in this statement.


  4. Mick Curran Avatar
    Mick Curran

    Don’t Orthodox Christians ever get tired of denigrating the West?

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mic, yes we do. It is not a comparison between Orthodox East and Somethingorother West, but a comparison frequently between Orthodox Christianity and the modernity (East and West) that surrounds us all, and that sets the backdrop that all Christians must live and work out their faith. Orthodox civilization in the East long since was suppressed or destroyed. Most of what remains is found in the Church and the memory of its Tradition and Services. It is also a treasure trove of the common history of all Christians, not just the peculiar treasure of the East.

    But history took a path through the Enlightenment, modernity, etc., that, last time I checked, many, many critics in the West also struggle with. Orthodoxy simply shares in that struggle as we must.

    There is much that remains in Western culture that bears witness to its own Orthodox roots – the fact that you as a “Western” Christian believe in the Trinity, for instance, and many of the other teachings of the Councils that were largely hammered out in an Eastern setting – it’s your heritage, too.

    It’s not bashing, largely because there is no “Eastern” culture to deal with. There is simply the fullness of the Church. But the common culture that engulfs us all is a modern “Western” culture. There is little else other than some third world stuff and Islam.

    Orthodoxy is engaging, sometimes poorly, the culture in which it is now engulfed. But, as I noted, all Christians have to do the same or perish. Modernity is not a friend to any of us.

  6. Peter Avatar

    Very true father. Excellent way of putting the matter. I would like to add that the main reason for any apparent “bashing” that stems from “Eastern” Orthodox Christian theologians who are well meaning and are on their way to theosis (there are quite a few) — and anyone who is not in such a group does not really count as he is still full of passions; that includes me of course — comes from the fact that, without any doubt, this modernity mostly flows or at least has flown till now from the West to the East; it is for such a reason that they sometimes use the term “Westernization” in order to indicate a particular type of modernity that has its roots in the historical West of the 11th century onwards (but as you said continued through the Renaissance till our days, when the spiritual “Western Middle Ages” still insist).

    And, when your field keeps catching fire thanks to someone setting fires on its western side, you concentrate on that side so that the source disappears (without ignoring the other sides of course)!

    I do understand though why some people may feel a little uncomfortable with all this. As regards this HISTORICAL terminology (West, Westernization), the question “Didn’t we Westerners do anything right?” brings sadness and even despair to some.

    I will demonstrate how an apparent “Western bashing” is in fact not an anti-Western position quite the opposite! This is because contrary to what many Westerners believe, “Westerners bad, Easterners good” is something that gets implied not by the proper Orthodox position of good theologians in the East (e.g. fr. Vlachos, fr. Metallinos etc) but by many … Western theologians!

    Ironically, indeed, the East vs. West false dichotomy is fruit of a Western viewpoint; it exists precisely due to a Frankish (ancient) and Neo-Frankish (modern)-based enmity against the citizens and the descendants of the Empire who carried this genuine (Orthodox) Christianity in its bosom, enemies who did not and still do not want to set the record straight; the main reason for this being (both then and today) the well-known vice: seeking power.

    Here is the key: there were NO essential differences between East and West that led them apart in 1054. Romans were Romans everywhere. They came apart because the Westerns who were mostly Orthodox to the bone fell victims of two interconnected evils: (a) a great period of illiteracy and poverty and (b) Francocracy.

    This is a long and difficult subject. I strongly recommend the following section from OODE under the subsection “Historical themes pertaining to Rome”.

    in particular the link “Romanity or barbarity?” is highly recommended.

    So this “anti-Western” book is in fact the GREATEST support of the West today! First, because it sets the Orthodox record straight, and we always strive for the truth in our faith; and second it shows that the problems in the West arose from a particular political and spiritual captivity.

    Today we simply live the result of this heretical outlook in the West; which, in our globalized society, has of course also affected the East. (I use the term “affected” because the majority of the heresies that plague “Orthodox countries” today come from the West. For example, as a Greek I know that about 90% of the heresies that plague Greece at the moment come from the USA. Leaving aside the papist and protestant heresies, I counted OVER 400 cults and parachurches active in Greece, many trying to present themselves as “Christian” using even the names of saints, supposed scientific methods etc etc).

    Nevertheless, I believe that knowing that many Westerners suffered a lot having had their Orthodoxy uprooted is a PRECIOUS thing to hold on to, as opposed to believing that somehow the Western way of approaching things led them astray already by the 6th (I even hear 4th sometimes!) century and that somehow it was inevitable that we’d part!

    No! The same cunning men who worked their frauds then also exist today and work their frauds because if we all learn history we may decide to kick them out of our lands and (using the experience of the Romean history) create a new Christian Empire, perhaps a Franco-Latin Germanic Anglo-Saxon Roman CHRISTIAN Empire, and live as much as possible love in Triunity (and not a mere amorphous “unity” of Ecumenist proportions that New Age and its New Order promotes today).

    We Orthodox, wherever we may live today, have, the obligation of yesterday: to rise up spiritually towards theosis in order to set the record straight for the Ecclesia and to heal one of its members, namely our self! Heal thyself and there’s one less problem for the Ecclesia of Christ! (elder Paisios used to tell his spiritual children).

    And a final point. The bashing can sometimes concentrate on the old and new Western secular outlook, in the sense of Papism’s side-effects (Protestantism, Racism, Atheism etc); in terms of condemning actual atrocities that took or take place.

    The massacre of the Serbs by the Western forces did not take place in the 11th century AD; as I recall it took place in 1999 during the Clinton administration, with the blessing and support of American and Western European Papists, Protestants and Moslems! Again, we witness the same method: media propaganda, lies, nationalism, preparation for war etc. And as I recall at the time it was my English Orthodox friends that first told me of the (atheist, secular) “Holy British Crusaders” of Tony Blair who were sending down bombs to the poor Orthodox people of Serbia mocking them with the words “Christ is risen” written on the bombs; and this during the Holy Week of Pascha! So to speak out against this is “bashing”?

    Understandably, this and many other such incidents like this, also bring hostilities and even hatred, even to Orthodox, esp. those who are “loose” or who cannot love their deceived enemies. Fanaticism is not a privilege of religions or of Westerners only etc; we all have the same ability to move away from God or come near Him.

    As for those who get tired of the “bashing”, they should know that the “bashing” we do is not selective to Westerners. Don’t we also “bash” — to bring a recent example — our deceived Neo-idolaters in Greece (our version of New Agers)? The above link from OODE (subsection on Greece) will show to anyone who is interested some excerpts on the barbarity of the Olympic games in ancient Greece, which is what my ancestors did. And far worse than that (there is a HUGE website that they have and “bash” paganism on a daily basis but alas it is only in Greek for now).
    But — just to bring a quick example — the first Crusaders were the ancient Greeks; that is where the Aristotelian-lovemongers of the Middle Ages got many of their … ideas. Of course, due to nationalism Greek children don’t get taught these things at school these days (we always get served romanticised and thus idealised versions of history so we can puff up our pride). But nationalism has no place in Orthodoxy, and nothing comes before the truth. Yes, we often speak when we shouldn’t or in ways we shouldn’t due to our passions; but that is another topic. Discernment, the salt of the virtues, is the only way a balanced approach can exist that leads Orthodoxy to become the soul of the existing large powers (US and EU) so that our children may one day live in a Christian Empire, without the terrible dangers that they go through every moment in this secular society we live in.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    I have read Romanides and appreciate many of his insights. It is sometimes hard for “Western” readers because it is an account of history that runs so counter to anything they have ever heard – even though historians in modern universities are always rewriting history and attempting create “politically correct” versions. I find Romanides more convincing than most modern accounts.

  8. Peter Avatar

    Father, thank you for your insight. You are again very right in saying that it can be difficult for them and the reasons.

    Still, this can be difficult for “a lot of us” too; the historical setting unfortunately eludes many of us for now. Hence we also fall victims of all sorts of propaganda.

    But with God’s help all things will improve.

    Thank you for your insights, father and your blessings. Please pray for us sinners.

  9. shevaberakhot Avatar


    It is only by the grace of God, dispensed through the Church, that we are able to lose our innate, self destructive urge to reciprocate.

    (By “Church” here, I mean the living stones of the temple of the God — the body of Christ).

    Very interesting perspective, thank you.

  10. Reed Merino Avatar

    You have not yet responded to Nate’s question about what you said regarding Fundamentalism.

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